Noe Valley Voice July-August 2003

Neighbors Rally to Rewrite Ending for Cover to Cover

By Sharon Gillenwater

The letter that appeared in the window of Cover to Cover Booksellers the first week of June broke the news gently: "Now sadly, regretfully, we have to inform you that soon we will be closing our doors and saying goodbye to the neighborhood that has been so nurturing for so many years.... Times change, and you move on."

And my, how times have changed. In the fall of 1999, the Dow was above 10,000, unemployment in San Francisco was at 3 percent, and famed author J.K. Rowling was holding court at Cover to Cover's spacious new digs on 24th Street, reading her latest Harry Potter adventure to more than 100 enraptured fans.

Now, three-and-a-half years later, the proprietors of Noe Valley's only "general-purpose" bookstore--a 20-year institution in the neighborhood--were talking about shutting down and filing for bankruptcy. By mid-June, many of the store's shelves had been cleaned out, and the children's section, once well stocked with books for kids of all ages, was nearly devoid of merchandise. The yellow playhouse in the back of the store, a favorite among Noe Valley kids, looked forlorn in its barren surroundings.

But was this really the last chapter for Cover to Cover?

Sluggish Sales a Sign of the Times

Mark Ezarik and Tracy Wynne thought it was. The bookstore's owners say they arrived at the decision to close after months of agonizing. Like many small business owners, Ezarik and Wynne were battling an economic downtown with no relief in sight, and they had not been covering their overhead for quite some time.

"I would love to point a finger at somebody, but the last one to two years have been really tough on most small businesses," said Ezarik. "It's a simple matter of sales not being high enough to support the store."

For many customers, the announcement just confirmed what they had feared for months. "It was very apparent to me that there was no new inventory coming in," said one friend of the store, who wished to remain anonymous. "I knew that they were in trouble."

Ezarik and Wynne had been working at Cover to Cover for many years when they took over ownership from founder Nicky Salan in early 2000. This changing of the guard coincided with the beginning of the stock market slide, and it's been bad news ever since.

"How many people do we know who have been out of work for a year or more?" asks Ezarik. "I know at least three who used to be good customers. When the bottom fell out of Silicon Valley, tourism dropped, and families could no longer afford to live in Noe Valley, it was like we were stuck in a three-way crunch. A lot of things happened that we just could not have anticipated."

If that weren't enough, the store also faced stiffer competition from chain stores like Borders Books and online retailers like two-ton gorilla threatening to wipe out independent bookstores all across the country.

A Long History in the Neighborhood

For a short while, Cover to Cover seemed immune--perhaps because of its long tradition in San Francisco.

Salan opened the original Cover to Cover on Clement Street in 1976. In the early 1980s, she moved the store to a prime storefront on 24th near Sanchez (now occupied by Toko Imports), where it flourished for 16 years. Four years ago, the store moved to its much larger location at 3812 24th Street, near Church.

The move will be remembered as one of the more colorful events in Noe Valley history. One Saturday morning in early 1999, over 200 customers showed up to help Salan and her staff carry the store's inventory two blocks down the street. As clusters of dogs and toddlers stood spellbound, a human "book brigade" passed books hand-to-hand down 24th Street.

That moment, say Wynne and Ezarik, captures the close personal relationship the store has had with book buyers in Noe Valley. It is this special bond, shared among Cover to Cover's owners, staff, and patrons, that makes the idea of closing the store so difficult to accept.

"I really don't have much to say," said former owner Salan, when asked to comment on the potential closing of the store she founded so many years ago. "I did this for 30 years and I was hoping it would continue. I feel like I am losing a child. It's a sad time."

For Wynne in particular, the difficulties of the past two years have left her exhausted and emotionally fragile. "I am letting Mark do all the talking," she said in early June, "because every time I talk about it, I burst into tears."

Shock, Tears, and Frustration

As might have been expected, the owners' farewell announcement brought a steady stream of longtime customers into the store. Most expressed sadness and disbelief at the news, and more than a few shared hugs and tears with the staff.

"Tracy and I cried together," said Mary Whitten, one of the store's most loyal patrons.

Though she lives in the Mission, Whitten has always considered Cover to Cover to be her neighborhood bookstore.

"I feel like a friend of mine is dying," she said, choking back tears. "My daughter, America, grew up in that little yellow house. When she was old enough to walk down the street by herself, I would let her walk to the bookstore while I went to the grocery store. Cover to Cover has been a big part of her life."

Others reacted with anger and frustration, saying that the economy, and the neighborhood itself, was to blame.

"With the fight that the neighborhood put up to maintain the Sally Brunn Library, I find it ironic that we can't come up with the energy to save our community bookstore," said Brian Cheu, a Cover to Cover customer who lives on 24th Street just steps away from the store.

"The neighbors are very good at keeping out chain stores and things they don't want in the neighborhood," Cheu said, "but if we're not there to patronize locally owned businesses, it's very hypocritical. I understand the need to save money in difficult economic times, but we need to balance that with the needs of the community."

If Cover to Cover closes, Cheu warned, "Noe Valley will be left with no bookstore focusing on the broad range of in-print books. People won't recognize this loss until after it happens."

It's Not Over Till It's Over

But even as he was speaking, a posse of neighbors was riding to the rescue. Upon learning of the pending closure from Wynne in early June, Elizabeth Street resident Peter Gabel quickly began mobilizing Cover to Cover customers in an effort to save the store.

"My first reaction was that it must be possible to save it," said Gabel. He asked Wynne and Ezarik for more details about the financial state of the business and offered to help. Within a few days, he was contacting potential investors and encouraging Wynne and Ezarik to come up with a new operating plan. He also met with Supervisor Bevan Dufty, whose office offered business assistance and began looking at potential loan opportunities.

With the community's help, Gabel hopes that the bookstore can weather the remainder of the recession and be there to serve future generations of readers.

"They have been carrying the burden of economic decline for a long time," said Gabel, who is president emeritus of New College of California and the director of the college's new Institute for Spirituality and Politics. "I know the strain that can put on you. It can be liberating to open it up to the neighborhood and give them the opportunity to offer support."

500 Pledge to Spend $25 a Month

To this end, Gabel has launched the "Save Cover to Cover" campaign. The campaign has two goals: first, to raise the $200,000 needed to take care of outstanding debt and rebuild the store's inventory, and second, to generate a reliable revenue stream that will get the store on solid financial ground.

He is addressing the first goal by talking to people who might be willing to invest as little as $1,000 or as much as $25,000. Loans would be repaid over six years, during which time lenders would enjoy a 25 percent discount at the store.

As for the second goal, Gabel and other members of the campaign are asking customers to pledge to spend $25 at Cover to Cover each month.

By late June, he had secured commitments for $100,000 in loans, and a corps of volunteers manning tables on 24th Street had collected pledges from close to 500 people to spend $25 per month.

"Our goal is a thousand [pledges] by Labor Day," said Gabel, with growing confidence.

In addition, the Save Cover to Cover campaign is investigating whether some of the store's space might be subleased to a tenant--perhaps a café--which would help pay for operating costs and bring in more customers.

And, leaving no stone unturned, the group, with a nod from Cover to Cover's owners, is scouting out alternative locations for the bookstore in a busier section of 24th or Castro Street.

Last Chapter a Cliffhanger

Meanwhile, Wynne and Ezarik have been "overwhelmed" and "energized" by the flood of neighborhood support.

"People's response has been so touching, so moving, that no matter how this whole situation resolves, we'll always have the memory of so many people mobilizing themselves on our behalf," said Ezarik. "That's not something that carries a price tag. It can't be quantified."

As the Voice went to press, they were preparing to host a midnight bash on June 20 to celebrate the release of the newest book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

"I had originally envisioned it to be a 'goodbye, we love you' party, but now I don't know what it's going to be," said Wynne. "Now there are all kinds of possibilities opening up."

In fact, there may be a happy ending to this story.

To join the Save Cover to Cover campaign, send an e-mail to Peter Gabel at, call 282-7197, or go to

A Beloved Bookstore

As news spread about the potential closing of Cover to Cover--24th Street's premier independent bookstore--reactions poured in from all over Noe Valley and from as far away as Oxford, England. Here are just a few of the comments the Voice received:

"That a bookstore of such quality and achievement can't survive in today's economic environment is a very sad thing for us all."

--Philip Pullman, author of the Sally Lockhart and Dark Materials trilogies for young adults, Oxford, England

"I am forever grateful to [Cover to Cover owner] Tracy Wynne for recommending the Lemony Snicket books for my son and for hosting the first-ever event for my book."

--Janis Cooke Newman, Liberty Street resident and author, The Russian Word for Snow

"It's a huge blow to the community. I never really expected this one to go."

--Brian Cheu, former director of the Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center (LYRIC) and current head of the LGBT Community Center

"I am absolutely devastated. What [Cover to Cover] did for children's books was brilliant."

--Blair Moser, Fair Oaks Street resident

"To lose a community business that has been there for so many years and has a loyal customer following is always a big loss."

--Hut Landon, executive director, Northern California Independent Booksellers Association

"Not only has Cover to Cover bookstore displayed the Noe Valley Nursery School's beautiful quilts for many years, they've also sold raffle tickets for us and expressed their delight in our handiwork. The staff at Cover to Cover have always been a source of inspiration to me. As a lover of good literature and a teacher of preschoolers, I hope we can help keep them open forever."

--Nina Youkelson, 34-year director of the Noe Valley Co-op Nursery School

"I've been a part of Cover to Cover for 14 years. It's run by people who love books and provide a haven for authors and other people who love books. I just hope somehow they can pull through."

--Cara Black, Alvarado Street resident and author of Murder in the Bastille and other Aimée Leduc mysteries

"There is a grassroots movement under way to save the store. I don't want anyone to give up yet."

--Peter Gabel, president emeritus of New College of California and author of The Bank Teller and Other Essays on the Politics of Meaning